Review Summary: A back to basics release from Led Zeppelin which failed to live up to the sky high standard set by its predecessor but still managed to provide plenty of quality cuts and a couple of essential classics.
By the time Led Zeppelin released 'Presence' in '76 they really had nothing left to prove. They had already carved out a place as one of the essential rock and roll acts of all time and the masterpiece that was 'Physical Graffiti' had further cemented that position. That seminal work was a triumphant amalgamation of the many styles they had experimented with on their previous releases. As is so often the case when gifted musicians have progressed to a logical conclusion with their art they choose to either diversify further or go back to basics. Led Zeppelin chose the latter on 'Presence' but with an intention to introduce a higher level of complexity than was found on their first couple of albums.
The album was conceived and recorded during a rather turbulent period in the band's career. Plant had been injured abroad in a car crash just after the release of their previous album and when he joined up with the rest of the band they recorded 'Presence' in just eighteen days due to limited studio time. The band members had to work overtime to finish the recording and it was particularly hard on the wheelchair bound Plant who was in physical pain and was also suffering from homesickness. Furthermore, the fact that Plant was in hospital for much of the album's compositional period meant that Page was more of a major player in the song-writing stakes than usual. This might go some way to explaining why it is such a guitar dominated album compared to previous releases.
If you listen to 'Physical Graffiti' and 'Presence' back to back the differences are quite stark. The intricate multi-layered epics are gone, the gentler folkier side of their music is entirely suppressed and there is a total absence of keyboard sounds. Instead we are treated to a far more direct approach whereupon their bluesy hard rocking and funk influences are channelled into a focused barrage riding upon a much more forward sounding production than that given to their previous release. This album certainly contains some of Zeppelin's most hard hitting music. Opener 'Achilles Last Stand' is an epic thrusting hard rock song with a galloping bass line, heavily overdubbed guitar arrangements and a literally bone-shaking contribution from Bonham on the drums. It also features one of Jimmy Page's most memorable extended solos. However, compared to the rest of the music on here 'Achilles Last Stand' is rather an anomaly. The album in general is far bluesier and funkier than suggested by the opener and this manifests itself to great effect on 'Royal Orleans' with its irresistible groove and hip-thrusting vocal delivery. Multi-tracked phased guitars herald the arrival of 'Nobody's Fault But Mine' which is a traditional gospel song that the band made their own. This song features a typically idiosyncratic vocal performance from Plant full of trademark wails and screams with a great harmonica solo mid-section and another masterful solo from Page towards the end.
A few of the tracks on here tend towards the more forgettable spectrum of the band's repertoire. 'Hots On For Nowhere' and 'Candy Store Rock' don't quite live up to the standard set on the rest of the album but Zeppelin save the best till last in the form of the epic 'Tea For One'.
The song opens in a way that belies its true nature with a mid-tempo interplay between guitar and drums but soon settles into a gorgeous slow minor blues number that recalls 'Since I've Been Loving You'. This masterpiece is dripping with slowburn emotion as Plant laments his feelings of loneliness and homesickness imposed by his long absence from his family due to his accident. His vocal performance on here is without a doubt one of his very best. Not to be outdone Page delivers some of his most tasteful guitar work ever including an emotion drenched solo that dominates the mid-section of the song.
Led Zeppelin certainly fulfilled their ambition of getting back to basics on 'Presence'. The album encountered a mixed reaction from press and fans alike and in some ways it can certainly be seen as a step down from the magnificent 'Physical Graffiti'. Then again when a band has just delivered one of the best albums of all time you can forgive them somewhat for a slight lapse. 'Achilles Last Stand' and 'Tea For One' are essential Led Zeppelin classics but the album can feel slightly mediocre at times especially throughout its middle section. However, as Jimmy Page once boasted, Led Zeppelin's mediocre was better than anyone else's best.